THE Prime Minister's chance disclosure that he is not
contemplating a third term in office has rattled his party, unused
to seeing its internal speculation about succession made suddenly
public. The party's brand managers face the prospect of taking a
familiar product off the shelf - possibly before its sell-by date
has been reached - and having to construct a marketing campaign for
another. Thus far has British politics become personal.
Besides annoying his party's grandees, David Cameron's remark
did several things. First, it assumed that he would have a second
term in office, not a view shared by his political opponents. A
similar degree of presumption was blamed for Neil Kinnock's defeat
in 1992. Second, it excited the pundits to to the extent that
The Times front page announced "Cameron fires start gun on
Tory leadership race". Third, it reminded voters that Mr Cameron is
a human being, able to contemplate life after holding the highest
office. Predecessors in the post have had either to be voted out or
carried out. No tear-stained face peering from the car window for
him. But, fourth, it has given rise to the absurd notion that Mr
Cameron's heart is no longer in the job. If someone can talk
relatively openly about giving up, what does that say to the voters
about his commitment to the office that he holds?
It says nothing that they could not have worked out for
themselves, of course. The fixing of a five-year period between
elections, one of Mr Cameron's first acts in 2000, made it all the
more improbable that a politician could progress easily into a
third term. Also, the demands of the job, and the keen scrutiny
under which a Prime Minister now lives, are bound to take their
toll. If the politician cannot see that, then the family man
should. Assuming the media calms down - and five years is a long
time to be talking about runners and riders - Mr Cameron's move
will be seen as a sign of sound common sense. And by stating it
publicly, however intentional this was, he has ensured that he must
stick to it. The one caveat relates to public service. Mr Cameron
must beware of giving the impression that his commitment to the
public good is time-limited. Any suggestion that he is looking
forward to a period of privileged wealth creation after leaving
Downing Street would undermine any vestiges of belief that the
Conservatives are concerned with equality of opportunity.
The combative nature of party politics, where a lost policy or a
lost appointment for one side is a gain for the other, makes it
hard for people to contemplate the voluntary relinquishing of
power, even at this remove. Christians, however, view this affair
from a different perspective. The Gospels are, among many other
things, a study in the nature of power, and what God thinks of it.
The regal period of Christ's ministry lasted a few days at most.
Although he signalled to his disciples that his period of office
was extremely time-limited, they were not able to take in the fact
that it was only in the act of supreme relinquishment that Christ's
ministry was fulfilled.